In space no one can hear you grieve
Developed by GhostShark and published by Iceberg Interactive, Still There is best described on the game’s Steam page as “a story-driven psychological adventure game about lingering grief, technical puzzles, wacky AIs and dark humour”. And even though they’ve laid it out for gamers in that description well enough, it doesn’t convey the absolute intensity behind those words and just how much Still There delivers.
Players take on the role of Karl Hamba, eking an existence out in the Brane Co. owned space station, the Bento. With only a snarky AI named Gorky as his companion, Karl spends his time searching for stars with high radiation and reporting back to his company. You’d think such extreme isolation might drive him insane, but truthfully, he sought it — withdrawing from his former reality, too painful to bear. With no sun to signal the beginning and end of a day, time melts into itself, with little to distinguish one moment from the next…
..that is, until he received the distress call that would change everything.
There’s so much to delve into with Still There that words make it feel cheap, and truthfully, I’m not sure where to begin. Truly, the game developers — no, game artisans — masterfully created a moving testament to the human experience, where exploring the depths of grief is just as fascinating as diving into the space-time continuum. Since it’s a relatively short game (seven hours depending on how fast you solve puzzles) I don’t want to spoil much, but just know that the twists are delightfully fresh and definitely out of left field.
Everything about Still There was so thoughtfully designed that I’m sure it’s been gushed about repeatedly, but one thing I think is worth mentioning above all is how players discover who Karl is. After completing the tutorial, players are left to their own devices in terms of exploration, and in a small, cramped space station, there’s not much to do upon first glance; digging around the computer, however, seems like an obvious choice, and reading through old emails, logs, and even an unfinished novella gives both the player AND Karl insight into who he is — and what I discovered literally left me in tears.
There is something so visceral, so real about Karl, that learning about him and how he decided to deal with his grief caused some impromptu introspection. Something in Karl made him feel toxic to those around him, so he felt the best course of action was to remove himself from society in the far-flung reaches of space so that he’d be long-forgotten, where “the self-deprivation is complete: nobody can perceive you. After a while you stop perceiving yourself too.”
Fuck. I felt that. Hard.
Coupled with the ambient, somewhat sad music and already feeling the late-night melancholy I’m prone to, it was this sentiment that made me weep. I was immediately moved, then soothed, by Karl’s raw honesty, his relatable pain, and his alternating fear of/desire to connect — but only at a distance.
In terms of puzzles, Still There offers no hand-holding. Gorky will point you in the right direction in case you forget, and there is a technical manual that will serve as your Bible during your time aboard the Bento, but that’s about as much as you get in terms of any help. The puzzles themselves are realistic for the setting — from triangulating a ship’s location by pinging its last known position to fixing an oxygen leak, these are, hands down, the best puzzles I’ve ever seen in a space-themed game. Everything makes sense, everything is challenging, and everything drives the storyline further. It’s one of those rare instances where mechanics and storyline are married in the most beautiful way.
The art style is absolutely divine — what sets Still There apart from other adventure games is that there’s only one true setting, but, like a Shenmue game, that setting is completely packed to the brim in terms of activity diversity. Post-it notes are dotted along the metal hallways, food packets are stacked up on top of cabinets, and books and other reading materials can be found scattered throughout the room. There’s so much to do and read that I found myself exploring a space that likely was on par with a cramped New York City apartment; making a space that small that interesting shows definite skill.
The writing is chock-full of personality — sometimes games by smaller studios suffer from only having one writer who ultimately makes every character sound the same, but this was not the case with Still There. Gorky, the dorky AI, was playful and blunt, while other characters were fiery, despairing, or professional. Each one sounded like a completely different person, and each one sold their personalities solidly through their writing.
I have nothing but glowing words of praise for Still There as a whole, but I must confess that it is unfortunately not best experienced on the Switch. I’ve only experienced joycon drift on three games thus far, and Still There was the absolute worst offender. Leaving my Switch idle for only a moment would cause my cursor to drift upwards and to the left — something that doesn’t happen in other games. This alone wouldn’t cause me to knock the game, but point and click games in general are just better on a PC, as any console cursor moves slowly and imprecisely across the screen in comparison to a mouse. Additionally, as there are SO MANY BUTTONS to press in Still There, the small Switch screen really doesn’t assist much in terms of visibility. My verdict on this is that you should 100% buy Still There on PC, choosing the Switch version only if you don’t have a PC.
I have spent two days on this article, writing and erasing everything I’ve written because words simply don’t do Still There justice. A poignant, deeply moving experience that I know will stay with me for a long time, Still There lays bare the depths of grief, allowing us to look into a stranger’s mind that, as we play, realize easily mirrors our own. The dev’s ability to accurately capture and portray this coping mechanism surprised me — even scared me — as I recognized similar patterns within myself. What a sobering experience this was.
If you want a game that will legitimately change you, causing you to reflect on your own coping mechanisms and maybe even push you towards healing your own wounds, look no further than Still There — a masterpiece that absolutely belongs in your library.
Final Verdict: 4.5/5
Available on: PC, Switch (reviewed); Publisher: Iceberg Interactive; Developer: GhostShark; Players: 1; Released: November 20, 2019; MSRP: $14.99
Editor’s note: This review is based on a retail copy of Still There given to HeyPoorPlayer by the publisher.